TAMPA — Ronnie Oneal III has been waiting to make his case to a jury for close to three years. Facing the death penalty in the brutal 2018 attack on his family — but legally presumed innocent — Oneal has seen previous trial dates come and go.
Lawyers in Tampa are set to begin picking his jury next week. But now comes a new wrinkle: One of the prosecutors is in quarantine.
In a routine court hearing Monday, Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Ronald Gale explained that his co-counsel, Scott Harmon, had been exposed to the coronavirus over the New Year’s holiday. Harmon, who attended the hearing via Zoom teleconference, said he is in a two-week quarantine, per the policy of the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office.
The prosecutors asked that Oneal’s trial be postponed. They argued that Harmon would be unable to assist in selecting jurors and preparing witnesses. If the trial went ahead as scheduled, Gale said, he would have to bring into the case a third prosecutor, one who would be unprepared.
But Oneal’s defense objected to a postponement.
Assistant Public Defender Carolyn Schlemmer pointed out that a number of other trials have occurred in the past few months. She noted that Oneal’s trial has already been delayed multiple times, and said it’s possible someone else involved in the case could still be exposed to the coronavirus in the future.
“COVID’s going to be with us for a while,” she said.
The judge also wouldn’t budge.
“I am sensitive to the fact that Mr. Oneal has been waiting to go to trial for a very long time,” said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco, adding that she was not inclined to further delay the case.
The judge suggested that Harmon be tested to see if he has COVID-19.
The prosecutor said he intends to do so. But even if he tests negative, Harmon said, he would still need to remain in quarantine at least until Jan. 15.
As of now, the three-week trial remains scheduled to begin Jan. 11.
Oneal, 32, is accused of killing his girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron, and their 9-year-old daughter, Ron’Niveya Oneal, and attempting to kill his 8-year-old son, Ronnie Oneal IV, at their Riverview home in March 2018.
It’s expected that Oneal’s defense will center on a claim that he was defending himself after Barron attacked him. He argued as much last month when he invoked Florida’s stand your ground self-defense law in a bid to have one of his two murder charges dismissed. Judge Sisco later denied his stand your ground claim.